February 25, 2020
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The Triangle

New Delhi's foreign policy Catch 22 is between an American embrace and the Chinese chill

The Triangle
Jitender Gupta
The Triangle
A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
-—Chinese proverb

Last week, Establishment New Delhi was practically purring with anticipation as it waited for Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to fly in for consultations on President George W. Bush's controversial National Missile Defence (nmd), a system by which incoming hostile missiles are destroyed in flight. Barely had the US president announced his plans than New Delhi, with astonishing alacrity, effusively supported the plan about which, it has been wryly noted, "the technology has to catch up with the advertisement". It's a plan so incipient that some might readily concede, as eminent American scientists have done, that the probability of the nmd coming into force in the next few years is only moderately higher than a snowflake's chance in hell.

This is precisely why many in New Delhi thought the wild rush to embrace the nmd plan amounted to a diplomatic equivalent of a stampede for tickets to a Britney Spears concert. Sections of the hoary security establishment were aghast. The air bristled with nuclear lexicon. "Dangerously premature," declared Congress foreign policy stalwart Natwar Singh, whose party had oxymoronically described India's first nuclear test 26 years ago as a "peaceful nuclear explosion".

Adds former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey: "I agree there should be a transition from the outdated mad (mutually-assured destruction) but the transition should be to a nuclear weapons-free world and not to the world of new weapons systems that actually increases the uncertainties." Similarly, another former foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, criticises the alacrity with which India rushed into American arms: "We could have waited for at least another three to four months to take into account the reactions and arrangements which America could make with Russia and China."

What galled critics is the effusive statement of intent of the ministry of external affairs (mea) that hopes to engage with the US in what is decidedly Washington's search for a new security doctrine for itself. And since it is axiomatic that what is good for Uncle Sam is also good for the world, it is then good for potential new allies, such as India, as well. Or so the assumption goes, for the moment.

The problem is that the nmd looks suspiciously like a military system in search of an enemy. If it doesn't find one, it will create one. This enemy has a name. Three years ago, almost to the day, former defence minister George Fernandes diplomatically called it Potential Threat No. 1. Many will swear what he really meant was India's Enemy No. 1. He was referring, of course, to China, the entity that external affairs minister Jaswant Singh later swore did not represent a threat to India. Now, the nmd will promote China to Global Enemy No. 1. This has serious security implications for India.

But first, why China dislikes the nmd. China's main opposition stems from its worries over the possible extension of the Theater Missile Defence technology, a sea-based missile shield, to Taiwan. Once Taiwan is protected by this shield, China would find it more difficult to achieve its goal of reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. Also, the nmd would render China's two dozen or so icbms redundant.

Writing in Disarmament Diplomacy, the director (Asia program) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Robert Hathaway—who believes that "Beijing's response would be almost inevitable: a massive build-up of its missile forces"—noted: "It is certain that New Delhi would not view such actions on the part of its primary strategic competitor with indifference. India would surely respond with an accelerated missile programme of its own and Pakistan would automatically follow along. So a Bush initiative said to be stabilising and exclusively defensive could in fact set off a dangerous new missile race, with profoundly adverse consequences for stability in South Asia."

Agrees Prof Li Kangmen, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, "Although China's mordernisation will be primarily US-focused, it would invariably have India exploit this development to use it as a convenient cover to expand its own nuclear and missile forces. This in turn will trigger Pakistan's insecurities... South Asia, already one of the most dangerous nuclear flashpoints on earth, will witness another arms race and heightened tensions."

Are we ready for it? A.N. Ram, former secretary (east) in the mea, declares, "If we are really going to meet a Chinese threat in the new context, we would also have to do some upgradation of our own. It is a hopelessly imbalanced situation in terms of what we have today and what they have today. We will have to go back to the drawing board. Those who say that it will have no impact on India are obviously speaking off the cuff."

There are some who believe that aligning with the US will enable India to become a counterpoise to China and consequently even help us resolve our disagreements with China. Ram dismisses the presumption: "We can't kid oursevles into believing that as of today, we are into the game of counterpoising anyone, least of all China."

Chinese scholars are worried over what all this means to Asia's future. Prof Cheng Rongsen of Fudan University, Shanghai, declares, "India should desist from playing the US card and maintain its role of promoting sustained peace and harmony in the Asia-Pacific region." Warns Prof Wang Suhai, professor of international studies at the Peoples' University, Beijing, "If India candidly supports the nmd initiative, then the developing Sino-Indian ties, which have got impetus in the past two years, will be affected."

Shorn of complexities, this means China could deepen strategic cooperation with Pakistan, to which it has previously given nuclear know-how, put the resolution of the border dispute on hold, support secessionist groups in the northeast, be less politically sensitive to India's problems with neighbours such as Bangladesh and Nepal, block any move for India to enter the UN Security Council...

Though the list is not endless, it is certainly troubling. This would overturn a settled pattern of emerging relationship. As Zhao Gancheng, a senior scholar at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, sees it: "The bottomline is that as long as most Chinese perceive India as a great neighbour, even if sometimes not very friendly but never a rival or enemy or threat, the danger of an arms race between the two nations will vanish. Chinese concern is mainly from the Taiwan issue and it does not have much military insecurity with India."

Sumit Ganguly, professor of Asian studies and government, University of Texas, Austin, warns bluntly: "Indians will be especially concerned about the growth of Chinese capabilities, if the Chinese continue to insist they will not discuss their strategic and nuclear programmes with the Indians and that the Indians need to go ahead and sign the ctbt and the npt. I should add that the architects of India's weakness, many of whom reside in India, will continue to insist that India should not respond in any fashion that the Chinese may deem provocative.They will of course be joined in an unholy chorus by the non-proliferation zealots in the US. The latter crowd is only interested in disarming others but not deem the weapons of the Permanent Five (of the UN Security Council) to be dangerous, provocative or threatening to anyone."

Others argue that the nmd would lead to a permissive atmosphere which could be risk-prone. For instance, P.R. Chari, director at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, says: "The nmd represents a definite shift in the security paradigm from one that depends on the traditional concept of nuclear deterrence. But under the nmd, one side theoretically not only has the capability to inflict first strike but also the ability to blunt a second strike. This party becomes free to threaten any country without fear of retaliation. It could make for a certain amount of recklessness. Moreover, counter-measures are not particularly difficult but they add up to a great deal of instability. As for Pakistan, India's 'astute' move would increase their insecurity. And so would Islamabad's dependence on nuclear weapons. If that happens, are you more stable or less stable?"

New Delhi's haste to embrace Bush and his defence plan hasn't given it time to weigh its advantages and disadvantages. As Dixit points out, "A wait of three or four months could have given us time to determine what our own requirements will be in terms of our own weaponisation and security needs. Was there some particular, definite and immediate political advantage in being the first and most prompt in supporting the US? America's response to our gesture will depend on American interests and calculations and not on our expectations just because we have supported them."

Indian government officials insist there are no immediate quid pro quos, no linkages and no discussions of specifics. "It's a listening brief," as one diplomat put it. If so, what then are we getting into? Diplomats say there is no alternative to talking. By opposing it, India is not likely to change the course of the nmd. Also, China is anyway inexorably expanding on its nuclear capabilities, "developing as fast as possible" even without the nmd factor. Officials feel that the agenda of the Republican administration will lean heavily towards security issues and the process of consultations with New Delhi could yield India more effective reach into the Pentagon. Incidentally, it is Pentagon officials in former Republican administrations who occupy critical political posts of authority today, be it Condoleeza Rice (national security advisor), Donald Rumsfeld, (defense secretary) or Richard Armitage (deputy secretary of state).

Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center, though, disagrees: "In truth, continuity with past perceptions, assumptions and practices will characterise the Bush administration far more than dramatic paradigm shifts—as one would expect in an administration whose senior officials constitute a who's who from earlier Republican administrations."

However, many despair of the direction New Delhi is taking. Rues Manoranjan Mohanty, Institute for Chinese Studies, New Delhi, "I think India should not have endorsed the nmd plan. It reverses the trend of disarmament and pushes India closer to the US strategic network which we may regret later. We should independently oppose such militarisation, whether it is by the US, China or Russia. The present government is taking the country in the opposite direction."

Indeed, while welcoming the nmd speech, New Delhi, in a purely reflex action, declared: "India has always stood for a multilateral compact that results in an elimination of all nuclear weapons globally." What was omitted was the phrase India used to throw in earlier. Typically, it would demand total elimination "in a time-bound manner". Now, obviously, there is no hurry.

Moreover, the government's statement implies that the process of crossing over to a defensive, cooperative transition is a "technological inevitability". Previous Indian injunctions on disarmament have included pious pleas that called for a political reining in of technological impulses that governed qualitative weapons development—which is what the nmd is. Now benchmarks like these lie forgotten like forlorn gravestones in an unvisited cemetery of good intentions.

Foreshadowing a taste of the future, Rajiv Gandhi, even as he railed against nuclear delinquency, asked, almost helplessly: "Left to ourselves, we would not want to touch nuclear weapons. But when tactical considerations, in the passing play of great power rivalries, are allowed to take precedence over the imperative of nuclear non-proliferation, with what leeway are we left?" This has now been further accentuated. Enlightened self-interest has taken over where ideology stopped. Ever since India has stressed on the security aspects in its defence requirements, there has been a proportional political downplaying of any claims to lead the world towards disarmament. This is ironical. Nuclear powers are downsizing their arsenals for purely technical and financial reasons whereas India's security requirements might well deem that we need more and better nuclear weapons. As it is, our nuclear deterrence is on paper only. It didn't prevent Gen Pervez Musharraf from jaywalking into Kargil. Moreover, deterrence doesn't work against infiltration.

In the good old days of non-aligned rhetoric, a chorus of voices would have found arguments against the US using the cover of "rogue states" for furthering the nmd. As it happens, even in the US this ploy is seen as a smokescreen at best. The Cato Institute, a think-tank in Washington, this March published a brief that brandished impressive arguments running down the rogue state concept. The study noted, "The US has agreed to lift some economic sanctions against North Korea. North Korea is rapidly improving its relations with South Korea. Iran is haltingly liberalising at home and improving relations with the West. Iraq's missile capability continues to be hampered by the effects of wars and embargoes on military technology... Overall, the international security environment is changing favourably and so-called rogue states are starting to act less roguish."

There is some hope in New Delhi that Washington will see some roguish attributes in Pakistan. But former foreign secretary Dubey throws cold water on such expectations: "The US has successfully and successively bailed out Pakistan from its economic crises. That pattern is going to hold. In spite of strenuous efforts by India, they have not declared Pakistan a terrorist state."

Madhavan Palat, professor of Russian and European history, Centre for Historical Studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, sums it up pithily: "China is headed for a Soviet future in American strategy. It is almost the same recipe. On the other hand, Pakistan cannot afford an arms race as much as India can.Our chaps probably think we are sitting pretty on this one. But Pakistan is certainly not about to become another Libya in America's estimation."

Hathaway, too, injects a note of caution: "Certainly, we can applaud the healthy new tone to Indo-American relations. But unrestrained giddiness about 'paradigm shifts' or a strategic rapprochement between India and the US is premature. To the contrary, substantial differences over the nature and goals of Indo-American partnership are likely to complicate future relations. A short list of issues where Washington and New Delhi will find it difficult to collaborate would include Pakistan, China, Iran and the future of the global non-proliferation regime."

However, Michael Krepon of The Stimson Center, Washington, differs: "This is a period of new possibilities, not limits, on US-India relations. New Delhi's favourable response to Bush's nmd speech reflects an ambitious agenda on India's part, as well as perhaps the expectation that Bush's missile defence plans will eventually get reined in by technology hurdles, cost and Democrats on Capitol Hill. One possible spin-off could be greater military interactions between the US and India."

Ultimately, part of the distrust stems from the rapid warm-up of ties between Washington and New Delhi. As Dubey says: "Our calculations are wrong. First, the calculation is that we assume we are in the ranks of friends. Only so long as you are subservient to their interests do you remain friends, one must weigh the continuing adjustments that you will have to make in your foreign and domestic policy to retain that position. What happens then to non-alignment, to independence of judgement and action in matters of foreign policy?"

Having got into the same political bed as the US on the nmd, Indians are bound to ponder: who makes a better neighbour? Potential Threat No. 1? Or Global Enemy No. 1? Many will prefer the former because China would be less inclined to create problems for India.

V. Sudarshan in Delhi and Yukteshwar Kumar in Beijing
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